About the Project
Located in the south of the Isle of Man, the site of Rushen Abbey represents some of the most significant ecclesiastical remains on the Island. Following its acquisition by the Isle of Man Government in 1998, control of the site was conveyed to Manx National Heritage who, with the assistance of our research experts in Manx Studies at the University of Liverpool, began a programme of research and excavation in an attempt to understand both the upstanding and sub-surface remains. Excavations continued seasonally from 1998 until 2008.
The Abbey was founded in 1134 by Olaf 1st King of Man and the Isles, as a daughter house of the Savignac Abbey of Furness in Cumbria. It formed part of the King's policy to bring his realm, which stretched from the Isle of Man in the south to Lewis in the north, into the modern world. In 1149, along with the other Savignac houses in Europe, Rushen was incorporated into the successful Cistercian order. On the Isle of Man, Rushen Abbey was the most important landowner, apart from the King himself and also functioned as a royal mausoleum - the Westminster Abbey of the Irish Sea. The Abbot wielded great secular as well as religious power, many of the abbots eventually becoming bishops of Sodor (i.e. the southern isles ie the Isle of Man and the Hebrides).
The Abbey was dissolved in 1540 and its assets stripped and sold off in a three-month period in the summer of that year in order to help fund the enormous expenditure of Henry VIII on his foreign adventures. Only fragments of the abbot's lodgings and a single tower survived, the site eventually being taken over and run by a local family as a working farm.
In 1998 the site was purchased by the Manx government and opened to the public as a museum in 2000. The Centre for Manx Studies at the University of Liverpool carried out a series of excavations in 1998 and 1999 in order to establish the location of the main abbey buildings and to test for the survival of archaeological deposits. These showed that, despite its large land-holdings and rent income the Abbey itself was very small. The church had no aisle - very unusual for a Cistercian site - and the cloister was only around 11m2, instead of the normal 30m2. The abbey is the smallest in the British Isles and probably in Europe.
The work that has been carried out each year since 2000 has been directed towards understanding the nature of the site, its origins, the nature of its buildings and their function, as well as looking at the landscape of the monastic properties throughout the Island. In 2007 and 2008 work continued on a set of buildings situated to the west of the cloisters, where evidence for the earliest use of the site can be found. A field survey of neighbouring village Ballasalla, which appears to have been very closely connected with the Abbey from an early date, is worthy of consideration.